Free Agent Frenzy is almost upon us. We’ve gone through an Expansion Draft, the Entry Draft, and on Saturday, the annual tradition of throwing a bunch of money at players will begin. Over the next few days, I’m going to dive into the unrestricted free agent market and map out who’s available and who’s going to be interested.
Yesterday, I looked at the abundance of solid goaltenders floating around free agency. Today, I’ll take a dive into the much, much thinner market for free agent defencemen.
"I don't know if the Rangers are as eager for Kevin Shattenkirk as everyone thinks they are" - McKenzie, 1260— Maxx Stroke (@akaRCN) June 26, 2017
After Brent Burns signed an eight-year extension with the Sharks in November, Kevin Shattenkirk immediately stepped up in line as this summer’s biggest free agent prize on the blueline. He put up 42 points in 62 games with the Blues before being dealt to Washington at the deadline where he added 14 points in 19 games. All in all, his 59 points in 2016-17 was a career-high, and, over the past three seasons, Shattenkirk ranks seventh among defencemen in terms of points-per-game. He’s one of the game’s best offensive defencemen, there’s no doubt there.
Shattenkirk is 28 years old, coming off of a four-year contract with the Blues worth $4.25 million annually, and is hitting the open market for the first time in his career. It’s been known for quite some time it’s his dream to play for his hometown squad, the New York Rangers. New York bought out Dan Girardi’s contract and dealt Derek Stepan, opening up cap room for a potential homecoming, but Bob McKenzie says it isn’t a certainty.
In contrast to Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner is commonly viewed as the best shutdown defenceman on this summer’s market.
When looking at his on-ice goal numbers, that certainly adds up as Alzner is third among defencemen over the past three seasons in goals against per 60 minutes at even strength. But his on-ice shot numbers are a little problematic. In that same timeframe, Alzner ranks 94th and 72nd in the NHL in shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Also, his heat map suggests he’s a disaster when it comes to defending the area in front of the net.
He turns 29 in September, is coming off of a team-friendly four-year deal worth $2.8 million annually. It’ll be Alzner’s first time hitting the free agent market, and he’ll certainly be looking for a pretty significant pay raise on his previous salary. That said, based on his one-dimensional game and sketchy underlying numbers, he’s a disaster contract waiting to happen.
Michael Del Zotto’s NHL career has been a rollercoaster ride. He broke into the league as a 19-year-old with the Rangers back in 2009 and put up an impressive 37 points in his freshman campaign. His sophomore season was riddled with injuries and inconsistent play, then, after that, he finished 12th in Norris voting in his third season. Most recently, Del Zotto has been all over the grid in Philadelphia. In 2014-15 he appeared, again, to be on the right track, but the emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere shoved him down the depth chart and injuries kept him in and out of the lineup.
Now, Del Zotto is hitting free agency again as a reclamation project. He hasn’t played a good, complete season since 2011-12, and, despite having tremendous upside, is about as big of an enigma as they come. His production is up and down, his underlying numbers have been quite good the past two seasons, and, as Rangers and Flyers fans will attest to, he’s prone to terrible decisions and giveaways in the defensive zone.
Del Zotto is only 27 years old and his skill certainly makes him worth a gamble, but banking for him to play a major role on your blueline is a huge risk. On a short or cheap deal? He’s worth a go.
A couple of years ago, Cody Franson was a big ticket rolling into free agency. He was expected, along with names like Andrej Sekera and Mike Green, to strike gold on the open market. But the didn’t happen. Day after day passed, and nobody was willing to shell out a big contract to Franson. He ended up taking a two-year deal with the Sabres in September, and ultimately had a pretty forgettable stint with the Sabres.
Those years in Buffalo were forgettable not necessarily because of him, but because the team was atrocious. Franson was in and out of the lineup with injuries, and production waned due to a decrease in power play minutes. He’s certainly still a solid defenceman. Franson boasted some of the best underlying numbers on the Sabres’ blueline, which was certainly a challenge considering the fact he was involved in a game of musical chairs when it came to partners. He makes an interesting bounce-back candidate this summer and is definitely worth a risk on a similar two-year deal to the one he signed in Buffalo.
Mike Babcock says he'd like to have pending UFA Matt Hunwick back with the #leafs next season.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) June 20, 2017
Matt Hunwick was signed by the Maple Leafs a couple years ago to soak up minutes on a thin, inexperienced blueline. He did exactly that. In his first season in Toronto, he got caved in playing alongside Roman Polak. Hunwick was fed 22 minutes per night in difficult situations and it showed, as his shot attempt differential was among the worst on the team. But last season, his usage went down, and him and Polak were much more effective on the team’s third pair.
Hunwick is what he is. He doesn’t provide any offence, as his career-high of 27 points came back in his rookie season in 2008-09, but he’s reliable, consistent, gritty, can shut the other team down, and play on the penalty kill. In other words, he’s a very solid third pairing defenceman. If you’re expecting anything more from him, though, you’ll probably be disappointed. He was paid $1.2 million annually on his last deal and will likely get something similar again this summer.
For a hot minute there, it looked like Trevor Daley’s career was waning. He was send to Chicago as part of a deal for Patrick Sharp, partially because he was a disaster defensively on the Stars blueline, and partially because the Hawks needed more bodies on their blueline.
He was played in a minor role with the Hawks, averaging just under 15 minutes per game before being sent to the Penguins in a cap dump involving Rob Scuderi. Then, suddenly, Daley figured it out. He put in excellent numbers in Pittsburgh and played a key role in back-to-back Stanley Cups on a ragtag defensive corps.
He really is a stab in the dark, but Daley, who turns 34 in October, will generate a lot of interest this summer based on the play he’s performed in the playoffs the past two runs. He’s a versatile veteran who can still produce some offence if put in the situation to do so.
Another member of that ragtag Penguins blueline I mentioned above, Ron Hainsey will hit the open market this summer after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career. Acquired at the trade deadline from Carolina, Hainsey had played in parts of 15 seasons in the NHL without making a single playoff appearance.
He turned 36 in March, but Hainsey still has game. He’s played 907 games in his NHL career, ranging from a guy who produces offence and quarterbacks a power play all the way to a cagey veteran who plays in a difficult, defensive role. Hainsey makes a solid addition on a short-term deal for any contending team, as we saw with his time in Pittsburgh.
Last week, the Flames acquired Travis Hamonic in a trade with the New York Islanders. With that acquisition, it’s safe to say Michael Stone’s time in Calgary is finished. Stone was acquired by the Flames in a deadline deal with the Coyotes. He was decent in Calgary filling Dennis Wideman’s old alongside T.J. Brodie on the team’s second pair.
Stone will be hitting the open market for the first time this summer, coming off of a one-year, $4 million deal. After his strong 2015-16 season, it seemed as though the Coyotes would ink Stone to a longer term deal, but the ACL and MCL injury that ended his season made him too much of a risk. It looks like they made the right choice, as Stone’s production and underlying numbers both took a steep decline last season.
Still, this is a player who put up 36 points in 75 games as a 25-year-old on a bad Coyotes team, has posted good underlying numbers for most of his career, and has a considerable amount of skill and a high hockey IQ. It’s hard to say if he’ll get a contract with term anywhere, but like many players on this list, he’s a right handed shot with upside, and is worth a risk for a team with some cap room.
Not much went right for Dmitry Kulikov in 2016-17. Last summer, he was acquired by the Sabres in a trade involving Mark Pysyk, and was supposed to anchor Buffalo’s top pair alongside Rasmus Ristolainen. It didn’t take long for things to go south. In a preseason game with the Maple Leafs, Kulikov took a hit from Colin Greening and fell into Toronto’s bench gate, suffering a bruised butt that forced him to miss the first few games of the season.
All in all, Kulikov would play 47 games with the Sabres, posting just five points and a negative shot attempt differential. Also, while we don’t generally use the very flawed plus/minus stat, Kulikov managed to have the lowest rating on the team at -26 despite playing in just over half of the team’s games. That’s, uh, something.
He’s never been a producer offensively, but Kulikov was solid in a shutdown role for seven seasons in Florida. Though his 2016-17 season was nothing short of a disaster, he’s only 26 years old, and will definitely be given a chance to redeem himself in a buy-low situation somewhere next season.
According to as source, Andrei Markov is looking for a 2 years contract / $12M total ($6M per season) #tvasports— Renaud Lavoie (@renlavoietva) June 27, 2017
Andrei Markov (LHD) Summer 2017 has taken its toll on the Canadiens’ blueline. Alexei Emelin was lost in the expansion draft, Nathan Beaulieu and Mikhail Sergachev were used in trades, and veteran Andrei Markov is a free agent. According to Renaud Lavoie, Markov is seeking a two-year deal with the Habs worth $6 million annually. That’s obviously a pretty heavy contract for a guy who’s turning 39 in December.
But Markov is still an effective player. Last season, he put up six goals and 30 assists in 62 games and some of the best underlying numbers on the team. It’s expected he’s going to fall off a cliff because of his age, but a few years ago Markov’s career appeared to be over after a two-season span in which he played only 20 games due to injury. He bounced back from that and has continued to be a very good, reliable, offence-producing defenceman for the Habs. If Montreal doesn’t give him that contract, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody else on the open market did.
Brian Campbell’s return to Chicago didn’t reach expectations, but he was solid for the Blackhawks last season. He returned to the Hawks on a cheap, let’s win one deal worth just $1.5 million plus bonuses after spending five seasons leading the Panthers blueline in Florida.
Like I said, it wasn’t pretty, but Campbell got the job done. He averaged 18 minutes a night on Chicago’s second pair, produced 17 points, and had a slightly negative shot attempt differential. He turned 38 in May, but likely can still be useful in a bottom pairing role. It makes sense for any cash strapped contending team like the Hawks in need of a veteran.
Johnny Oduya was another member of the good ol’ days Hawks re-acquired to play in Chicago this season. The Hawks grabbed him from Dallas at the trade deadline and tossed him alongside Brent Seabrook rather than his familiar role with Niklas Hjalmarsson. Oduya did what he always did in the Chicago glory days, which is suppressing unblocked shot attempts.
He’s going to be 36 in October. It’s hard to say whether the Hawks want Oduya back considering the new direction they’re taking with their roster, but if not, he’ll have no difficulty catching on somewhere in a third pair, shutdown role.
The Rangers bought out the final three years of Dan Girardi’s contract earlier this month, making him a free agent for the first time since 2010. Once upon a time, Girardi was one of the game’s best defenders. He always got guttered in terms of shot attempt differential and never produced much offensively, but Girardi was known to make life difficult for opposing forwards in the defensive zone.
But time has taken its toll on Girardi, who plays a hard, demanding game. He turned 33 in April and has 788 games of NHL experience and a few long playoff runs under his belt. Over the past two seasons, nobody was on the ice for more shot attempts against per 60 minutes than Girardi. The eye test may suggest he can still be an effective defender, but the numbers suggest otherwise.
Dennis Wideman kind of fell of the grid last year after the Flames acquired Michael Stone. His past two seasons have been poor, but in 2014-15, Wideman produced 56 points in 80 games and received some Norris votes. Obviously that player in long gone, but Wideman, who turned 34 in March, is a right handed defenceman who can produce offence in a sheltered role. That’s basically a unicorn on this market, so he should be able to catch on somewhere.
What does the market look like?
This is a pretty thin market for teams looking to make major upgrades on the blueline.
There’s one big prize that a lot of teams — Tampa Bay, Buffalo, New York, New Jersey, and Toronto have all been rumoured to have interest — are going to be going in on. Kevin Shattenkirk is this summer’s biggest name, and because there’s nobody available who’s in the same ballpark as him, he’s going to get paid.
Karl Alzner seems to be the biggest name on the defensive defenceman side of things. He’s been rumoured to be looking for a $7 million annual deal. That has the potential to be this summer’s free agent landmine. I doubt he gets quite that much, but based on the amount of teams who appear to be interested, he might come close.
After that, though? There aren’t many big names out there. The rest of the market for free agent defencemen is littered with a combination of flawed, risky players who have either struggled with injuries or inconsistency, and a large group of veterans who may or may not have something left in the tank.
Thanks to the lack of big, game changing names out there, somebody like Michael Del Zotto or Cody Franson may end up getting more dollars and term than they usually would as a desperate team seeks to add somebody with upside to their blueline. I mean, the Oilers gave Kris Russell $16 million over four years to block shots into his mid-30s. Also, minutes after I published this, the Rangers and Brenden Smith agreed to a four-year deal worth $4.35 million annually. That should tell you how much of a player’s market it is for defencemen this summer.
What does all of it mean? If you want to make an upgrade on defence this summer, you’re going to be making a gamble. It really shows the importance of drafting and developing defencemen, because finding a good one on the open market isn’t easy.
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Read also: 2017’s free agent market for goaltenders